Not Quite Big Enough
It’s been a tough start to Big West conference play for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team. The Anteaters (7-9, 1-2), who were picked to finish third in the Big West preseason poll, lost both road games in their trip to the central coast last week, falling 74-71 to UC Santa Barbara and 72-67 to Cal Poly, just one week after defeating UC Davis, 69-58, in an overtime thriller at home. In all three games, the Anteaters had put themselves in a position to win in the final seconds of the game, but came up short in both games on the road.
It took UCI an extra five minutes of overtime to overcome a halftime deficit and defeat the UC Davis Aggies (4-9, 0-2) in their Big West opener on December 29. Seniors Daman Starring and Adam Folker led the Anteaters in scoring with 15 points each, helping the Anteaters improve to 7-7 and 1-0 in conference. Freshman Alex Young finished with 12 points and two assists, while sophomore Will Davis II added 10 points.
Young changed the momentum of the game in the second half for the Anteaters. Trailing 41-35, UCI’s starting point guard brought down a defensive board and pushed the ball in transition, finding Davis II running the floor with a beautiful lob that Davis II went up and slammed home. On the ensuing possession, Young picked the pockets of Davis guard, Corey Hawkins, and finished on the other end warranting a Davis timeout and pulling the Anteaters within two. After a defensive stop, Young stepped up and hit his second three-pointer of the game to give the Anteaters their first lead since 5:39 in the first half. Young’s energy sparked what would become a 16-2 run by the Anteaters giving UCI a 49-43 lead with 11:10 left in the game.
After Davis countered with an 8-0 run with just over seven minutes remaining in the game, the two teams exchanged buckets, with the Aggies taking a two-point lead with 10.6 seconds left in regulation.
With 5.8 seconds left, Starring caught an in-bounds pass from junior Chris McNealy in the corner, made a hesitation move toward the baseline, and beat his defender to the basket, sending the game to overtime. Starring continued where he left off in overtime, scoring the first five points of the period, giving the Anteaters a 63-58 lead. It was the only scoring needed for UCI, who went on to shut out the Aggies in the overtime period. The Aggies went 0-8 from the field in the overtime period en route to a 69-58 UCI victory.
“I’m proud of my guys like I always am and for the way we competed,” head coach Russell Turner said. “I don’t think we played very well but I do feel like we are going to keep getting better. We are able to draw on our commitment to defense and this is the first overtime win so I feel good about that.”
The Anteaters blew a golden opportunity to make a big statement in the Big West, imploding defensively in the second half and falling late to the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (5-9, 1-2).
Starring led the Anteaters in scoring for the second straight game with 21 points while Young set a new career-high with 18 points. Folker was the only other Anteater in double-figures with 10 points despite playing only five minutes in first half due to foul trouble.
It was another down-to-the-wire game for the Anteaters, who started the game energized on both sides of the floor, jumping ahead to a quick 13-3 lead before UCSB went on a 10-0 run to even the game at 13 halfway through the first half. The Anteaters responded with a 17-4 run of their own, fueled by a trio of Starring three-pointers. Starring, who caught fire in the first period, went 4-5 from beyond the arc and scored 14 of his 21 points before the half.
The Anteaters held a 30-17 advantage with four minutes remaining, but were unable to stop a late surge by the Gauchos, who went on to outscore Irvine 15-7 in the final minutes of the half, closing the gap, 37-32, heading into the break.
“We know we got to win on the road in order to compete for the championship in this league,” Turner said. “We had a great opportunity to do that. I was really pleased with the way we came out of the gates in this game and I’m disappointed we were unable to sustain that energy.”
In the second half, Santa Barbara caught fire. The Gauchos hit all six of their shot attempts after the intermission, including 4-4 from beyond the arc. The barrage of three-pointers was part of a 16-9 run that gave the Gauchos a 48-46 lead before finally missing their first shot attempt with 16:19 left in the game. UCSB would outscore the Anteaters 17-11 in the ensuing minutes, taking their largest lead of the game at 65-57 with 7:37 remaining in the game. The Anteaters were able to cut the lead to five points, but with four minutes remaining, the Gauchos appeared to take control of the game with a 71-64 lead.
Sure enough, the Anteaters stormed back into the game, scoring seven consecutive points courtesy of two Folker lay-ups and a Starring three-pointer to tie the game up at 71 a piece with 1:30 remaining.
The Anteaters came up with a big defensive stop on the ensuing Santa Barbara possession, but were unable to capitalize as Starring’s shot was blocked and rebounded by the Gauchos with 20 seconds remaining on the clock. The Gauchos would score on their next possession on a three-point play and the Anteaters would not be able to match it before time expired.
“We didn’t defend in the second half and that’s why we got beat,” Turner said. “We were tentative, didn’t play with aggression, we didn’t play to win I didn’t feel like.
“We missed an opportunity to get a good road win, and give Santa Barbara credit; they took it from us, making shots we didn’t work hard enough to make [them] miss.”
The Anteaters let another game slip away against the Cal Poly Mustangs (7-6, 3-0) on Saturday after falling into an 11-point hole in the first half. UCI rallied back into the game, taking the lead going into the final minute, but were unable to capitalize with the game on the line.
Folker led the Anteaters with 16 points on 7-10 shooting and Young contributed 14 points all in the second half. McNealy eclipsed double-figures for the first time in five games with 11 points, while Daman Starring struggled to find his shot, scoring only eight points on 3-9 shooting.
Unlike the game against Santa Barbara, Irvine came out and had an abysmal first half. Other than the first two minutes of the game, the Anteaters chased the Mustangs for the entire period. With 8:20 remaining in the half, the Anteaters managed to cut the Cal Poly lead to three points with the score 22-19, but from that point forward, the Mustangs outscored Irvine 14-6 and took a 36-25 lead into halftime. The Anteaters’ struggles, for the most part, were due to their inability to take care of the basket, allowing Cal Poly to score 21 points off 10 Irvine turnovers.
“I told our guys at halftime we don’t need to practice anymore, we just need to lift nine times a week,” a disappointed Turner said. “They just took the ball out of our hands and out-rebounded us and just played a whole lot tougher than we did in the first half.”
Out of the gate, UCI rallied back on a 16-4 run giving them their first lead since 18:11 in the first half. On the backs of Young and Folker, the Anteaters took a 48-42 lead — their largest of the game — with 13 minutes remaining in the half. The two teams exchanged buckets for the next seven minutes of the game as UCI fought to hold off a Cal Poly comeback.
After five lead changes and three ties, the game was knotted up at 65 apiece with 2:16 remaining on the clock. Cal Poly would score the next three points, before Folker saved the game for the Anteaters by grabbing an offensive rebound off a Starring air ball and scoring the ball to cut the lead to one point with one minute left.
On the ensuing in-bound, the Anteaters’ aggressive defense was able to force a huge Cal Poly turnover on the Irvine side of the floor and give the Anteaters possession with 55 seconds left on the clock.
The Anteaters came out of the timeout and passed the ball around aimlessly, desperately looking for someone to step up, until senior Mike Wilder drove the ball to the basket and turned the ball over under the basket with 35 seconds left in the game.
The Anteaters quickly fouled and got another chance at the lead after Cal Poly failed to sink their free throws. With 33 seconds left in the game, the Anteaters had a chance to take the final shot of the game and take a one-point lead. Instead, Irvine settled for a corner-three from Young with 17 seconds on the clock that was missed and rebounded by Cal Poly. The Mustangs would make their final four free throws and put the game out of reach for the Anteaters.
“We have to get stronger play from our senior class,” Turner said after the game. “We should be able to win close games like this against teams that we’re more experienced than and I’m expecting we’re going to do that.”